By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: Women from all ethnic groups in Gao and the surrounding villages come together in the Peace Hut. Photo: UN Women/Sandra Kreutzer
Nestled in the heart of northern Mali, in Gao, a small hut was constructed in 2014. The hut is almost unnoticeable from the busy street outside: hidden by larger buildings around it . Just a year before this hut emerged, between 2012 and 2013, the region was occupied by militant Islamist groups, leading to massive displacement, a collapsed economy, and the destruction of infrastructure such as the airport, markets, and public buildings (UN Peacebuilding 2017). The hut offers a gentle oasis of peace in the form of space for dialogue, exchange, and cohesion. Known as the Women Peace Hut, this space welcomes women from all ethnic groups in Gao and other surrounding villages to engage on the broader ideas of peacebuilding in the region (UN Women 2019).
Initially, it began with seven women’s associations comprising 30 to 35 members each. Over time, the membership grew over nine times. The members come from all the ethnic groups living in Gao and the surrounding villages of Songrai, Bambara, Peulh, and Touareg (UN Women 2019). Each of these groups engages in income generation in one way or another – where they produce leather bags, keychains, soap, clothes, and coffee. The collective aims at collaborating across ethnic lines and expertise as they see themselves holding onto a shared destiny (UN Peacebuilding 2017).
Building peace one meeting at a time
The leaders and members of each of these associations meet twice each week, on Thursdays and Sundays. The hut is decorated with wall carpets, colourful sheets and posters, and photographs. In their meetings, the women engage on ways to implement the peace agreement, identify approaches to supporting survivors of violence and preventing violence against women and girls (UN Women 2019). They also work together to draw up strategies toward growing and enhancing their businesses in order to make a sustainable living (UN Peacebuilding 2017). On occasion, the women also invite politicians, regional and local authorities, and interfaith activists and religious leaders to address security problems. They also use these engagements to present their points of view.
Built by UN Women with financial support from the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, and the Peacebuilding Fund, these huts follow their successful predecessor, the Palava Peace Hut in Liberia (UN Women 2019; UN Peacebuilding Fund 2017). These spaces enabled safe and brave spaces for women to engage and share without any constraints. Some attend for advice, some ask questions, and some seek help. Everyone is welcome regardless of their backgrounds, identities, and affiliations.
Building sustainable futures
The Gao Peace Hut began as a centre for peace and reconciliation. In the initial years, the women were trained on addressing gender-based violence and implementing the peace agreement, through support from the UN Peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, USAID, Oxfam, and other local NGOs (UN Peacebuilding Fund 2017). With time, the women became independent (UN Women 2019). They established their own structure, which they keep refining with time. They run their own budgets, find niche markets to sell their products, and run the hut entirely on their own terms. In this time, they have acquired sound business hills and robust businesses that help them sell their products independently (UN Peacebuilding 2017).
Today, with a legal status that is governed by its own statutes and regulations, the women have also set up their own joint bank accounts that they manage transparently. Members are free to borrow money for personal needs. This is especially useful for widows who generally do not receive assistance from their families (UN Women 2019). They undergo constant capacity building and training sessions on business development and entrepreneurship. Some of their crafts have been taken to the capital and sold in local stores, as well.
Resilience in the face of violence
There are continuous, ongoing attacks and instances of violence, which prevents women from going to the local market to sell their wares – oftentimes being left stuck in Gao. The women are of the firm conviction that peace is not the mere absence of violence or the establishment of a ceasefire – but really a deeper socio-political commitment to building peace in mind and complete freedom from both threats and acts of violence (UN Women 2019).
The women continue with the hope of engaging actively in disarmament and enabling the voluntary handover of weapons and arms within their communities. Having found peace among them, they believe that they have what it takes to spread that peace beyond their small circle into the entire country.
UN Women. 2019. A place of peace, reconciliation and growth (May 7, 2019). https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/5/feature-mali-peace-huts-a-place-of-peace-and-reconciliation
UN Peacebuilding (2017). "Stepping into the Peace Hut." https://un-peacebuilding.tumblr.com/post/166114913940/stepping-into-the-peace-hut
UN Peacebuilding Fund (2017) "Between War and Peace: Rebuilding Social Fabric in Mali." https://unpeacebuildingfund.exposure.co/mali-visit-report